Wednesday, 18 November 2009

The Archbishop of Canterbury's enthusiasm for taxes

I saw the headline in the Telegraph: “Archbishop of Canterbury claims higher taxes would be good for society.” I thought “Good grief.” But instead of studying the article in the Telegraph, I decided to get it straight from the horse’s mouth, and headed over to the Archbishop’s website to read the full text of his speech to the TUC Economics Conference. (Probably a good move since the Archbishop did not actually, as far as I could see, say anything in praise of higher taxes, per se.)

I must confess that I was rather surprised to find that the Archbishop had been invited to address the TUC Economics Conference. And I was rather surprised to read his speech. He was talking about economics and society. This man is a professor of theology. We have plenty of economists and social scientists. Why was he speaking about their subject of expertise, not his own? Admittedly there was a bit of theology in his address, but not much.

To be honest, much of what he said was pretty much what one has come to expect from the mainstream churches in Britain. There was a lot about green issues: he is concerned about ‘sustainability’ and ‘environmental irresponsibility’ and the danger of ‘depleting the resources of the planet.’ There was a lot about questioning whether unchecked growth was a good thing. There was also a lot about family and community and the danger of ‘individualism’, by which he apparently means lack of understanding and sympathy for others. A lot of this is somewhat vague. Most of it I don’t have a big problem with. And I completely agree with him on the subject of protectionism - which he is opposed to.

The controversial bit was as follows:
'This will mean', [Tim Jackson] writes (p.142), 'revisiting the concepts of profitability and productivity and putting them to better service in pursuit of long-term social goals'.
The pursuit of long-term social goals concerns me. It suggests social engineering and centralised planning. And whose goals are to be pursued, anyway? I doubt that we are all agreed about those goals. Tim Jackson and the Archbishop may be agreed, but my gut feeling is that they are not infallible. Perhaps we need to revisit the concept of pursuing long-term social goals?
Along with this – a point flagged both by Jackson and by Zac Goldsmith in yet another provocative new essay, 'The Constant Economy: How to Create a Stable Society' – we have to ask about 'green taxes' (including 'green' tax breaks) that will check environmental irresponsibility and build up resources to address the ecological crises that menace us. The Contraction and Convergence proposals are among the best-known and most structurally simple of these, and it would be a major step to hear some endorsement of them from a body such as this.
The words “It would be a major step to hear some endorsement of them” are the key words. In other words, The Archbishop is backing the Contraction and Convergence proposals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Not much surprise there - not that I agree with him. Note that the Archbishop supports ‘green taxes’ not because he wants higher taxes - but because he is concerned about environmental responsibility.
It is of course connected with other proposals about currency exchange taxation – the 'Tobin tax' idea: the point is that we should be thinking about taxation neither as an unreasonable burden on enterprise nor as a simple mechanism of redistribution but as a potentially sophisticated tool for long-term 'economy' – housekeeping. Taxation builds a habitat – already, quite properly, through state welfare provision, but potentially in other less familiar ways.
The words to notice here are “potentially sophisticated tool.” What he means, I think, is “We are all in favour of using taxes to redistribute wealth, and hence to give us the welfare state, [No we’re not. Ed.] but we can also use them to manipulate people’s behaviour so that they do things that create a good ‘habitat’".

And 'habitat' was the Archbishop’s big theme in this speech. That is why he could write “It is of course connected with other proposals about currency exchange taxation”. How? What’s the connection? The Tobin Tax and the C&C proposals are both about how governments can use their powers to “create a habitat that we can actually live in,” “a home that we can reasonably expect will be an asset for the next generation,” to use the Archbishop’s phrases. In other words, just as an individual or family can envisage, plan, and create a home to live in, so ‘society’ (by which the Archbishop apparently means “the state” or even “the states of the world working together”) can plan and create a world to live in.

The vision is, to say the least, paternalistic; many would say authoritarian. It seems to me to be utopian: at best unrealistic and unachievable, at worst a step on the road to a Brave New World Society of total control by benevolent (or not so benevolent - let’s remember human nature!) dictators.

The curious thing is that the Archbishop didn’t attempt to base any of this on biblical or theological principles. Curious, but probably not at all surprising.

I will say this, however, in defence of the Archbishop. He was asked to speak at the TUC's Economics Conference. What was he supposed to say? (I'll bet Mr. Walker has an answer to that one, but I certainly don't!)

1 comment:

Young Mr. Brown said...

And Mr. Walker has, indeed, obliged, here.